In the 70s it was almost a must to drive a Ford Escort to win the RAC rally, the World Championship event held every year in Great Britain at the end of the season. From 1973 to 1979, all the winners where at the wheel of a car from the blue oval brand. Six of them were from Scandinavia, with three wins for the Finn Timo Makinen, two for his fellow countryman Hannu Mikkola and one for the Swede Björn Waldegard. The two remaining went to local hero, Roger Clark, the only man able to face, on the slippery forest stages, the prodigious Nordic aces and their innate skill to drive faster than anyone on any glass-like terrain.
Nevertheless, in 1980, things were about to change, and not only because a new decade was starting. The world of rallying was on the verge of a true revolution and in that year the ‘Lombard RAC Rally’ will be the end of an era. The future was around the corner, it was called ‘four-wheel drive’ and it was arriving through a brand with almost no presence so far in rallies: Audi.
But before the arrival of the ‘quattro’ revolution there was a running of the British event still to be held, a rally that was almost a World Championship on its own. This was a classic that everybody wanted to win irrespective of whether the result had any impact on the championship standings. In fact, it wouldn’t have any impact on either of the titles that year as the Manufactures and Drivers crowns were already decided in favour of FIAT and their number one driver, the outstanding Walter Rörhl, so they didn’t arrive. Nevertheless, the absence of the Italian team and its main star didn’t lower interest in the rally and the high level of the entries that gathered in the city of Bath to face the rally route. It would be a long and hard route, with no less then seventy special stages within two legs, to be run over four days. These stages varied from the slow and twisty, often described as ‘Mickey Mouse’, to be run mainly on private land, to fast sectors on famous race tracks, like Silverstone and Donnington and, especially, the long, winding and almost always muddy stages of the forest roads.
The latter were the true essence of the rally and the place where the result was decided every year. Given that any pre-rally reconnaissance was forbidden, and the route was kept secret until the very last minute, the capacity to improvise and experience in British rallies were key factors to thriving in the final round of the year, one of the more special events and maybe the most unpredictable, even for the always capricious nature of rallying.
Images of the 1980 Lombard RAC Rally (scrutineering, start, first special stages and arrival at Bath)
The presence of powerful teams from Ford, Opel, Triumph, Vauxhall and Datsun, with their competitive Group 4 models driven by the cream of rallying, made it hard to imagine that the win could end up in the hands of a barely 24-year-old at the wheel of a Group 2 car. This sounded like a pipe-dream even for the members of the small but gallant squad entered by Talbot. Directed by the experienced Des O’Dell, the team from the French marque was, in fact, very British with its HQ located in the industrial city of Coventry. Also British was the provenance of their cars, they were the small Sunbeam fitted with a Lotus engine, a 2.2-litre four cylinder derived from the 2-litre version that was used in the Elite produced by the famous company founded by Colin Chapman. With their Formula 1 experience Lotus they had managed to transform the initially boring touring car with its boxy, square shape, successor of the venerable Hillman Avenger, into a much more exciting package with an attractive image and improved performance.
As well as providing and tuning the engine, Lotus oversaw the building of the cars in new premises near its historic base at Hethel, using the bare shells sent by Talbot. Thus, from the street car was born, in 1979, a rally version (homologated in Group 2) with revised suspensions, flashy wheel arches to cover the widened track (with fat tyres on 14” wheels) and a robust and efficient five-speed close ratio ZF gearbox to transmit to the rear wheels the something more than 200 bhp that was extracted from the front located engine. It was the typical winning car scheme of the time, as in the Ford Escort, the FIAT 131 Abarth, the Opel Ascona or the Vauxhall Chevette, some of the most competitive models to face the three Talbot Sunbeam Lotus entered for the Lombard RAC Rally to be run in the rainy November of 1980. To beat them looked more than hard, but the veteran team boss was confident in the reliability of his cars and that, if the chance arose and, if his boys didn’t do anything silly, a good result could be achieved by such a little team of enthusiastic and very well-trained people.
Two of the cars were in the discrete white livery, with a longitudinal sky-blue line adorned with the Shell logo, of the Talbot works team. Their drivers were the French veteran Guy Frequelin who, when younger, had combined racing with rallying and was especially quick on tarmac stages but was a complete novice in the British event and its secret route on gravel roads, and the very young but extremely fast Henri Toivonen, from Finland, the son of the Pauli Toivonen who was declared the winner in Monte Carlo in 1966 despite ending up behind the amazing Minis… until the very meticulous scrutineers decided that their headlights weren’t acceptable and excluded them, leaving the victory to the, coincidentally, very French Citroen DS driven by the Nordic ace.
Some years after the controversial outcome, Pauli’s young son was driving a little English car, distant heir of the glorious Mini that were also tuned by another F1 brand, Cooper. At the wheel of the Sunbeam Lotus, Henri had already caused a sensation with his speed, but he lacked in experience and tended to get carried away by his youthful enthusiasm, which meant scoring spectacular stage times, beating far more powerful cars, but also suffering from some, no less spectacular, crashes. So, with the double task of guiding him through the intricate British forests and controlling his natural tendency to take more risks than necessary, Henri had as his co-drive in the RAC the experienced Paul White.
The third Sunbeam Lotus of the team had a far more striking look thanks to the bright yellow of its main backer, the heating equipment company ‘Andrews Heat for Hire’, combined with the red, blue and green stripes of Castrol oil. It was to be driven by a classic of British rallying, Russell Brookes, national champion in 1977 and on the RAC podium for the three previous years … at the wheel of the almost ubiquitous Ford Escort MKII.
Once again, another Escort dominated Sunday, the opening day of the rally, held on the short ‘Mickey Mouse’ special stages within the circuits and private parks to attract more spectators. Driving one of the MKIIs from Ford, the first leader was Tim Brise, brother of the great lost promise of British motor sport in the mid 70’s, the F1 driver Tony Brise, one of the victims of the airplane crash that also claimed the life of Graham Hill and most of his team at the end of 1975. However, Tim’s leadership would be as short lived as the stages where he gained it. An electrical problem in his Ford delayed him in the fifth stage, leaving first position to Anders Kullang and his works Opel Ascona 400.
While Brise was a willing privateer driver, taking advantage of the first special stages to get to the top of the time lists but not a real contender for the final victory, the Swede was among the pre-event favourites, so nobody was surprised to see him getting ahead of some other hot prospects for the win, like the Finns Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen, driving a couple of semiworks David Sutton prepared Escorts, or the Briton Tony Pond, at the wheel of the dramatic looking Triumph TR7. The wedge-shaped coupé that was quickly damaged when a tad optimistic run by the driver ended up with the car going through the, luckily empty, lions enclosure placed within the first special stage, held in the Safari Park of Longleat.
Curiously, Pond has been, the previous year, the driver in charge of the initial development work of the Sunbeam Lotus with which his younger successor in the team, Henri Toivonen, was getting closer to the top positions as the rally was progressing. And, while the veteran Tony was spending almost more time off the road than on it, making several mistakes, the far less experienced Finn was surprisingly consistent and careful on the dangerous Sunday stages, turned by the rain into a skating rink when on tarmac and a slippery mud bath when on gravel, resulting in a terrain were there was far more to be lost than won.
Because, as everybody knew, the true rally didn’t start until it headed North, to the forest stages in Yorkshire. Night fell when it was time for the first very long and meaningful one, Hamsterley, with more than 25 slippery kilometres and full of traps waiting in the darkness. It was a place White, Toivonen’s codriver, knew quite well and where he decided that it was the moment to give free rein to the talent of his young driver, whom he had kept well under control until now. Free at last to push as hard as he liked, Henri went for it and scored an amazing time, half a minute better than anybody else. It was just what the driver and codriver of the number 16 Sunbeam Lotus needed to know that, after all, they’d have chances to do something more than just putting on a bit of show but having to settle for a less exalted position in the results or, even worse, not finish at all because of some crash. Toivonen, despite the huge advantage obtained over his rivals on that special stage, didn’t drive over the limits set by White. Resolutely controlled by its young driver, the little car was being handled in a perfect and flowing fashion, always under control despite the high speeds he was setting on such a complex stage.
Next it was time for the ever-daunting Scottish stages in the forest of Kielder, famous for its destructive effects on a car’s mechanics, a very tough place, where it was almost as easy to make a mistake as to have a breakdown, given the roughness of the terrain, something that would soon be experienced by several of the contenders for the top positions. The always exuberant Ari Vatanen, who had already left signs of his commitment on the bodywork of his Escort, decorated with the unmistakable Rothmans stripes, ended up off the road after rolling twice. The two silver Vauxhall Chevettes of Jimmy McRae and Pentti Airikkala also went by the wayside, the Scotsman after a crash, the Finn because of a broken half shaft. The second of the works Opels, driven by Johannson, had also ended up with the white body of his car full of mud and dents after another crash. The Saabs of Blomqvist and Stromberg couldn’t keep up the pace either, with the revolutionary turbo engine totally blown in Stig’s case and a gearbox problem for Ola. Salonen’s Datsun and Eklund’s Triumph also had to give up with their engines broken.
While all that was going on, neither Toivonen made any mistakes nor did his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus miss a beat. Six fastest times, including the final one of the day, got Henri becoming more sure of his chances of fighting for the win. On Monday night, after a very long first leg, with 34 special stages (three of the thirty-seven initially planned had to be cancelled), the young Finn went off to bed in third position, behind only Kullang’s Opel (by whom he was separated by just one and a half minutes), and another Swede, the great Björn Waldegard, who had placed his Toyota Celica works entry a few seconds shy of the leader. Additionally, to the delight of Talbot team boss, Des O’Dell, the other two Sunbeam Lotus cars, driven by Brookes and Frequelin, were also going well. Both completed the day firmly in the top ten; fifth for the Briton, and the Frenchman in sixth. Ahead of them was Mikkola who, despite having lost almost four minutes after making a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes for a driver as safe as him, was fourth with the only Ford Escort remaining in contention for the win.
Footage of the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus cars in the first half of the rally, with comments from the team boss, Des O’Dell
The second half of the 1980 RAC started Tuesday mid morning, on an unusually sunny day for such an area of England in mid-November. Nevertheless, the rain that had fallen with such insistence over the previous days had soaked the gravel roads, so the grip would be as poor as on the previous day, with the cars fighting for some traction in the mud. To begin with the competitors had to face the two special stages of Grizedale. The first was the South, the shortest one at just under 10 kilometres which already sent a warning about what was to come. While Toivonen scored the fastest time, Kullang suffered a puncture and lost a few seconds. But this was nothing compared with the total turnaround produced by the longest Grizedale stage, the North. The leader had two more punctures in his Opel Ascona, both in the rear, so he was forced to stop and put at least one healthy tyre on the back of his car to continue, quite slowly, until the end of the stage with a loss of more than fifteen minutes. The second placed Björn Waldegard, arrived at the finish at an even slower rate, with the exhaust of his Toyota Celica throwing a thick cloud of blue smoke, obvious symptom of a terminal engine problem. Right behind the wounded Japanese car the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus of Henri Toivonen crossed the finish line at full speed. The Finn set the second fastest time, beaten only by a few seconds by Mikkola, and moved up to second position in the rally which was actually a virtual leadership given that the Toyota driver won’t go further as he had stopped his car with the engine finally broken.
There was still quite a way to go and, as the two Grizedale stages clearly showed, anything could still happen in the 32 special stages yet to run and, second behind Toivonen was no less than the winner from the two previous years, Hannu Mikkola, at the wheel of the well-known blue Ford Escort backed by ‘Eaton Yale Lift Trucks’. Just one and a half minute separated the two Finns, the young hotshot and the popular veteran, on a terrain that the latter knew better than almost anybody else. If you had to put your money on one of them, the logic was for the experienced Mikkola over the novice Toivonen, “Sooner or later he’ll make a mistake” was the thought of most people with regard to the young leader.
However, such a mistake didn’t happen. Henri kept up a very high pace and soon the difference to second not only didn’t shrink but, instead grew. The rain returned, and the afternoon was spent leaving for the location of the last night of the rally on the very slippery Welsh roads with the number 16 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus always leading despite some better stage times here and there for Mikkola or a furious Kullang, who was trying to recover some of the huge amount of time lost at the beginning of the day.
Here it was that Toivonen put the icing on the cake, offering a feast of six consecutive fastest times followed by a second position, behind his team mate Frequelin, in the thick fog of ‘Esgair Dafydd’, that secured the outcome of the rally as, by then, nobody was still thinking that the young Finn was about to fail. The commanding way he used to play with the balance of his car, moving it at will when arriving at every corner and exiting in a perfectly controlled slide while the rear wheels launched in the air a rooster tail of gravel, mud and stones as he was cheered on his way by the delighted spectators, was clear proof of Toivonen was on his way to winning. His boss could relax, the boy wasn’t going to do anything silly, instead he was dominating like a consummate veteran despite being barely 24 years old. Beside him in the car Paul White had long stopped worrying at all about some possible mistake by his young driver, now he was enjoying the spectacle of such a display of talent and skill, with the driver’s hands moving on the wheel with sheer precision while his feet danced continuously on the pedals. It was a privilege to be there, watching it live from a front row seat.
Footage of Toivonen’s driving captured from cameras placed inside and outside his car
When dawn broke, Mikkola was already four minutes behind and resigned to finishing in second position on his final outing at Ford before moving full time to Audi and its revolutionary Quattro. There were still ten special stages to go, so Toivonen and White decided that there was no longer any need to keep on in attack mode, better to take it easy and leave it to his team mates, Frequelin and Brookes, to share most of the remaining fastest times on the way to an amazing result for the three Sunbeam Lotus. They were battling for the third step of the podium, which finally went to the Frenchman by less than a minute from the Briton. Both finished almost a quarter of an hour behind that outstanding youngster they meet at every team service, amazed by the incredible times he was able to set at the wheel of the little Talbot they had also driven to their maximum during the four long days of the Rally.
The four days concluded with the return, on Wednesday, to Sunday’s starting point, the centre of Bath. The first under the finish arch was an immaculate Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, with the number 16 on its doors and not a single scratch on its white bodywork despite having spent the whole week hustling between trees and rocks, walls and ditches. Its driver, the young dark-haired Finn with a determined look, had made it dance at a frantic rhythm but always under his control. Like the ice-skater who throws his dance partner high in the air and makes her spin at full speed, but always catches her at the very last moment, just when impact with the ice seems almost unavoidable, converting that instant of doubt into yet another flowing move in the next step of a memorable performance.
There was no doubt; a new star was born just at the beginning of a new era. Toivonen’s win in the 1980 RAC rally at the wheel of the Sunbeam Lotus undoubtedly put the young Finn in the rally elite while also being the youngest ever winner of a World Rally Championship event. A record that lasted almost 28 years, until yet another young prodigy from the land of 1000 lakes, Jari-Matti Latvala, beat it by winning the 2008 Swedish rally as 22-year-old.
Toivonen’s victory in the 1980 British rally also meant the establishment of the Lotus-engined Talbot as a car capable of beating the Group 4 cars that had dominated the seventies. In fact, even if in 1981, the new Audi was already far superior to the little Group 2 car, that couldn’t compete either on sheer pace, in certain terrains, with the Opel Ascona 400, the new R5 Turbo or the veteran but still competitive Ford Escort MKII and the FIAT 131 Abarth, its great reliability, Toivonen’s speed and the consistency of his team mate, Guy Frequelin, allowed the small British squad to clinch an unexpected triumph in the World Championship for Manufactures ahead of the Japanese Datsun, whose robust Violet dominated the African rallyes but were less formidable in the European rounds, a true miracle that will never happen again. In the following years the 4×4 and the turbos were always faster, and each time more reliable, entered by always bigger and wealthier teams. The World Championship title for the small Talbot team in 1981 would be the last for a two-wheel drive car with an atmospheric engine and that engine, whose clean and resounding tone had been the sound track for the unique dance performed by Toivonen at the scene of his first win, the forest roads of the 1980 RAC rally, was a Lotus engine.